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It’s all smiles out on the DTE Energy Foundation Trails.

“I can’t stop smiling when I’m on this trail. It’s just wonderful. Doesn’t matter what kind of day you’re having you come out here and you ride you end up with bugs your teeth because you just can’t quit smiling.”

That’s what Kathy Bradbury, Fundraising Chair for the DTE Energy Foundation Trail told me last Saturday at the grand opening for the Sugar Loop Trail.

Top: Sugar Loop. Bottom: Green, Big Kame, Winn Loops.

“What thrills me is seeing the little kids out here,” she added. “I love seeing the families. I love seeing people who are maybe physically challenged out enjoying the trails.”

The Sugar Loop is the fourth loop in the DTE Energy Foundation Trail system in the Waterloo Recreation Area located seven miles north of Chelsea on M52. The trails are open to hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. These trails have been intentionally engineered for mountain biking. But what sets them apart is the consideration for land conservation and preservation in their construction.

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It may sound a bit counterintuitive – mountain bike trails being good for our natural resources – but in terms of environmentally conscious stewardship, the local mountain biking group is spearheading the construction of the DTE system. This group, the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association, is among the best at caring for promoting responsible public land use.

District Supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Murdock Jemerson, attended the Sugar Loop grand opening and commented on the exemplary stewardship the Poto mountain biking chapter demonstrates.

“We have a stewardship unit that works right, along with all of the other divisions within the DNR,” he explained. “We’ve partnered with people and work professionals in the design of this trail so that we aren’t disturbing critical areas.

Spectrum Trail Design is the company engineering the trail, and they have constructed natural surface trails throughout the Midwest with great success. Their paths are designed to maximize enjoyment but also built to prevent or minimize erosion, which in turn protects the plants and wildlife in the area.

“I’m not a mountain biker,” says Murdock, “but these folks and the professionals they’ve hired are cautious with what they are doing. They are tremendous stewards of our natural resources in the initial construction and ongoing maintenance of these trails. They are a pleasure to work with.”

Left: Greg Byce, Park Supervisor for Waterloo Recreation Area; Right: Murdock Jemerson, District Supervisor for Michigan Dept of Natural Resources.

The DTE Foundation Trail system is not an old-school trail building where bushwhackers blaze away with no regard for environmental effects. Today, trail building is about conservation, ongoing stewardship, and experiencing our natural resources through recreational engagement.

Paul Dobos and Matthew Markley live on Sugarloaf Lake, the namesake feature for the loop. The two are excited to have the trails so close by and took up mountain biking a year ago.

“I’ve always felt that wherever you are, there is something special about that place and you should take advantage of it,” says Paul. “So here, right out our back door are these incredible trails, and I’ve got to take advantage of that. We took up mountain biking a year ago and loved it.”

Board Chair of the DTE Energy Foundation Trail and the heart, soul, and stamina behind the project, Jason Jones, took a couple of minutes to address the bikers before officially opening the trail.

Paul Dobos and Matthew Markley (left) and Paul Dobos (right) live on Sugarloaf Lake and couldn’t be happier about the trail construction and sense of adventure it brings.

“The Sugar Loop is a lot more technical than the previous loops,” he cautioned the group. A few chuckles rippled through the crowd. I figured the chucklers just hadn’t ridden the trail yet. I had, and if anything, Jason was understating it. “There are optional lines around the features,” he continued. “There’s a lot of rock out here. Don’t be scared of the rock. Just take your time. Look at the optional lines, and it’s okay if you want to walk it.”

Mountain bikers loathe to admit it, but I’m not. I walk through and around a lot of the rock features – for a good reason. I learned firsthand a couple of years ago on the Big Kame loop that the Chelsea Fire Department charges you a $400 to drag your broken ass off the trail. Or in my case, four broken ribs and a fractured scapula.

Known as “Tenacious J” to his friends and especially to his opponents, Jason began more than 20 years ago the effort to create world-class mountain biking trails in the area. Unrelenting tenacity has become his defining personality trait. And it’s paid off. Not only are the trails of the DTE system, unlike any other in the Mitten State, but they have become a destination for mountain bikers far and wide. A few weeks ago, I got into a conversation with another biker who comes up from Lima, Ohio, once a week to ride the trails. Trail camaraderie is a hallmark of mountain bikers, and I’ve met riders from Holland, MI, Grand Rapids, and Indiana who have come to ride the trails.

The DTE trails benefit more than mountain bikers. The world-class trails are becoming a destination, and businesses in nearby Chelsea are beginning to notice. At Cleary’s Pub after a ride, the waitress mentioned in conversation that, “We’ve been getting a few bikers in here.”

Jason “Tenacious J” Jones, the man behind the mission.

That has been Jason’s intent as well – creating that “mountain town” feel that outdoor enthusiasts love which also pumps bucks into the local economy. “We’re hearing more and more mountain bikers are stopping in Chelsea on their way to and from the trails,” Jason told the group. “That’s what we want. If you stop in town, take a moment to mention that you’re here for the trails, so folks notice the benefit for the entire community.”

In a separate email, Jason elaborated a bit on that point. “During the past month alone, I’ve spoken with riders from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and even Minnesota who have specifically made a trip to the DTE Trail to ride.  All one has to do is to sit at a place like Zou Zou’s in Downtown Chelsea on a Saturday morning and count all the vehicles that go by with mountain bikes on top of their cars to see the economic impact on the community.  They come here to ride, they get done, and they eat at Jet’s or 52 BBQ.  Or, they go for a beer at Cleary’s, Zou Zou’s or Chelsea Ale House.”

“I know of people building houses in Lyndon Township because they want to be close to this trail,” he continues.  “The parking lots are overflowing on weekends, and even during some weekdays after work hours.  We want the Chelsea Chamber and businesses downtown to understand what this trail is bringing to the community, both from a quality-of-life perspective, but also from an economic perspective.  We don’t think that the message has necessarily resonated yet.”

The Sugar Loop cost $150,000 to build. Jason thanked sponsors such as REI for their ongoing support. He jokingly refers to the Sugar Loop as “The Five Healthy Towns Loop” because of their generous donation of $20,000 towards the loop.

Ground for the DTE Foundation Trail system first broke in 2015, and the Green Lake Loop officially opened in the spring of 2016. The much more technical Big Kame Loop opened the next year, and the Winn Loop opened in 2018. The trails are a fun and exciting combination of flow track, climbs, downhills, and technical features. They are accurately described as “dirt roller coasters.”

“Many locals get confused between our trail system, which is natural surface, and the Border-to-Border Huron-Waterloo Pathways paved linear trail system,” Jason explains.  “Both are great for the community.  Both have a symbiotic relationship with each other, but whereas the Huron-Waterloo Pathway has gotten a lot of media attention because of their big-budget and marketing efforts, we are kind of overshadowed by them.  It is important to understand the differences in both trails systems and their respective user bases.”

The 4-mile Sugar Loop is the fourth loop with one more loop, Area 52, in the plans but it will be a couple of years. All the money has been spent, $600,000 to date, and more fundraising needs to take place to build connectors, parking lots, and the final loop. Once finished, the system will consist of about 25-miles of mountain biking trails.

“We have zero dollars in the bank,” Jason half-joked to the gathered bikers. “So if you have a few extra bucks with you today please drop them in the donation jar. Fundraising is underway once again.”

Around 500 people were expected to show up to the official opening, which ran from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

To learn more about the trails and to donate to the cause, visit The DTE Energy Foundation Trail website at this link.

Here are a few pics of opening day and the trails.

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